Last night Michael asked me, in the sweetest way possible, what it is that Teacher and (since we were listening to the Suzuki CD) folks like William Preucils do that I can’t do that makes their playing sound so good. My immediate reply, conjuring the unsupported-by-research figure of Malcolm Gladwell, was, “Thousands of hours of practicing.”
And of course that’s certainly one correct answer. Another is that obviously my formal education is simply very, very far from complete on the instrument! But after thinking about it for a minute, of course there are some concrete building blocks of good tone that I’m aware of that contribute to the differences. So I thought I’d pin down a few of them here:
- Smooth and even bowing. Teacher says, “The bow is the breath of the violin.” Imagine a soprano singing an aria while coughing the whole time – that’s what we beginner strings players are up to. Concerns about bowing are myriad – Speeding up and down evenly, transitions between up and down bows, applying perfectly even and the proper amount of pressure on the strings while bowing, relaxing the bowing hand and arm – all are absolutely vital and amongst the most important considerations concerning tone production on the violin. And all of them are hard.
- Vibrato. The technique takes down the level of harshness/tininess/gravellyness of a sustained note on a string instrument; it also helps even out some of the imperfections everyone produces in bowing, and, in a less-than-ideal way, vibrato can also hide minor issues with being in tune. I’m barely getting going on it – it’s hard.
- Being in tune. This one is obvious, but it’s a constant struggle for all beginners on fretless instruments. You just have to plop the tips of your fingers down on precisely the correct spot on these itty-bitty strings or it does not work. Getting those spots right takes time and the development of a good ear. I’m coming along, but it’s hard. Every new key brings a new challenge.
- The instrument itself. On this front, I think I’m quite fortunate, thanks to my father-in-law, to be in good shape – at least for the level of playing I can hope to achieve having started at this stage of life. My 1926 Roth is a lovely German instrument that holds a great tune and, so far, sounds good across the high and low registers. Both Teacher and a prominent local luthier have told me so, and of course I myself love the violin. And it’s exactly 50 years older than I am – like all things aging gracefully, clearly it’s got some wisdom that helps me out!
So that’s my list for now – the concerns will be the same for a very long time for me. At the end of the day, while we can’t point to good research on Gladwell’s 10k hours, it’s pretty obviously true that the best answer to Michael’s question is indeed my gut reaction – years of near daily practice is what makes the difference between the pros and me, prodigious talent and a completed formal musical education notwithstanding.
Thanks for reading.